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Homer nurse writes memoir

Posted: March 31, 2012 - 9:31pm

Fans of Inlet Winds, Homer’s community band, might remember Gail Sorensen, the silver-haired, petite woman banging away on the drum in the percussion section. 

It turns out Sorensen, now 86, also has been banging away at the keyboard. Her latest book, and her first for-profit publication, “Ah Lee,” was recently published by Wizard Works, the Homer small press run by sisters Jan O’Meara and Betty Hunter.

Subtitled “My days as grandmother to Alaska’s Emergency Medical Services system,” “Ah Lee” tells the story of the Homer Volunteer Fire Department’s first woman volunteer emergency medical technician and her work training EMTs from Atka to Barrow.

“It just seemed like a piece of history that could be recorded,” Sorensen said. “I’ve written books before, but I never copyrighted anything.”

Those works include “Cadet Nurses Stand By,” 1996, revised 2010, in the Homer Public Library Top Drawer Collection, excerpted in “Your Country Needs You: Cadet Nurses of World War II,” by Thelma Robinson, 2009; “Old Age and a Happy Life,” an honorable mention in the 2011 Kenai Peninsula Writers Contest,” and “Vows,” a poem in “Tracing Shadows,” National Library of Poetry Anthology, 1997.

Sorensen first came to Alaska in 1970, driving up in a Volkswagen camper with her late husband, Albert Sorensen, and their three sons, Chip, Kent and Russell. They returned to Alaska in 1972, settling in Homer. The Sorensens moved here from Lakefield, Minn. Gail became a registered nurse at Abbot Hospital in Minneapolis, and served in the Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II. Chip and Kent still live in Homer, and Russ lives in Minnesota.

Her first job in Homer was as a nurse at the old 10-bed Homer Hospital, now South Peninsula Hospital. Al joined the volunteer fire department, and he asked Gail to come along on fire and medical calls.

“I was overjoyed to do that,” she writes. “Ever since I was a little girl I’d wished I could ride on the back of a fire truck and go speeding down the road ... I was in my glory.”

“Ah Lee” goes like that throughout the book — a light, easy read that seems as if Sorensen has sat down with the reader by a campfire and started to tell stories about her life working in emergency medicine. It’s mostly a travelogue, with the focus on how the Sorensens and other Alaskans helped train EMTs in remote Alaska villages. It’s a book stitched together more by place than time. The book covers Sorensen’s years working from 1971 to 1984 for the Alaska Southern Region Emergency Medical Services Council Inc., part of a state and national effort to improve emergency medical services. The Sorensens traveled around Alaska teaching EMT classes.

“It skips around from place to place and year to year,” Sorensen said of “Ah Lee.”

The title comes from “ah lee,” the Inupiaq Eskimo term for “ouch” or “it hurts.” The title characterizes Sorensen’s respect for Alaska Native cultures and her willingness to set aside Western ways when teaching Natives. For example, in a class in Dillingham, after going through an emergency simulation, Sorensen thought she should offer some criticism, even though the Native students had done well.

“Since I was the great white instructor, I thought I should mention something they could do to improve, so I said, ‘That was really good, but you should talk to your patient more,’” Sorensen writes.

A health aide, Clara, told her she didn’t need to do that, and proceeded to show her how Natives communicated without speaking. As Clara examined a patient for injuries, “Instead of asking, ‘Does this hurt,’” Sorensen writes, “She would question with a slight raise of the eyebrows. The young boy ‘patient,’ who was also Native, responded with a slight frown. Clara then knew that was a painful spot. She conducted the whole survey without either of them saying a word. I watched with admiration. When she was through, I knew I was an outsider in this land. I knew I had lots to learn about Bush Alaska.”

“Ah Lee” is rich with anecdotes like that. The Sorensens visited all over Alaska, meeting people and making friends. On one visit to Saint Paul, Sorensen describes a walk with her husband.

“We walked on the beach holding hands and looking at the seals and the many kinds of birds that were there. ‘We’re so lucky,’ we said in unison. Then we laughed. So many times we had said that as we traveled all over Alaska.”

Sorensen said it took her about a month to write her short memoir. Son Chip helped her with computer issues.

“It was fun to write it,” she said. “I think everybody’s got a book in them.”

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